A Method for Societal Implementation amidst Changing Japanese Values


Hozuma Sekine
Value Creation Process Manager


  • Now is time for Japan to ensure its competitiveness by transcending past successes and embracing new values
  • Progress will be fueled by the desire to contribute to society and connect with others
  • This can be achieved by building up a series of small-scale societal implementations that strive to achieve a common vision and impacts

Moving on from “Japan as Number One”

Published in 1979, the book Japan as Number One gave the country a major confidence boost on the international stage following its post-war reconstruction. It argued that Japan’s success was a deliberate result of unique Japanese institutional capabilities, policies, and planning. It asserted that these advantages meant the nation was in a position to continue developing over the next ten years, with no need to change such arrangements.

These projections proved correct. Japan was indeed number one from an economic and industrial perspective until the bubble burst at the start of the 1990s. However, the nation then entered and remained in a long tunnel characterized as the “three lost decades”. Changing values in the wake of the high-growth era led to discrepancies with Japan’s advantages postulated in the book—homogeneity, collectivism, and a centrally organized society.

Dentsu Institute and Doshisha University conducted a nation-wide survey in Japan in September 2019 as a part of the seventh wave of the World Values Survey; these new results demonstrate tangible differences between values in the Japan as Number One era and today. Society now tends to be more inward looking and focused on personal comfort compared to the results from 40 years ago. In particular, society has come to prioritize leisure and safety and dislike the authority of the state, fewer people belong to groups and organizations outside the workplace, and many lack a sense of duty to look after parents. Today, the kind of top-down societal implementation which drove Japan’s successes in the past is unlikely to work very well.

Setting the groundwork for societal change—integral to progress

Moving forward, societal implementation must create connections for people that align with their new values. A June 2020 Mitsubishi Research Institute Market Intelligence & Forecast survey of 30,000 individuals found that the rates of volunteering and business start-ups by age are in tune with these new values. Men and women in their 20s are highly likely to volunteer, a trend which declines with age as people approach their 50s.

The survey also revealed that men of 50 or over are more likely to start businesses, while in women this tendency is stronger for those in their early 20s; the younger they are, the higher the share of entrepreneurs. For both volunteering and entrepreneurialism, a direct response and gratitude from the recipients or users is likely associated with a sense of self-worth.

Youth in Japan who feel useful tend to have a stronger sense of self-affirmation than those in other countries1. Creating an environment where the younger generation can fulfill their aspirations—for a sense of usefulness and desire to contribute to others—will help create a better society.

The Tanegashima model for progress

The University of Tokyo has been conducting a community energy pilot project on the island of Tanegashima, a budding example of a change in approach to societal implementation involving a range of stakeholders from industry, government, and academia (Figure).
[Figure] The Tanegashima model for resolving societal issues
[Figure]  The Tanegashima model for resolving societal issues
Source: Yasunori Kikuchi, University of Tokyo
The project’s initial aim was to demonstrate the viability of sugarcane-derived biomass conversion technology. However, when putting in place crop production arrangements and working with the elderly, the researchers were confronted by local societal issues. Sensing the importance of tackling these issues head on, they approached universities with the technology and expertise to resolve them before proceeding with the project and invited them to join.

This resulted in over 20 universities joining the island’s municipalities and businesses to participate in the project. Further, new interactions between researchers and students from the participating universities and local junior and senior high school students prompted the island’s youth take initiative in looking for and solving local problems themselves. They became a driving force in the local community by changing adults’ mindsets. Some of the young people, after graduation, returned to the project to take on new responsibilities.

This kind of youth participation in a mutual sphere formed by collaboration between local communities and universities—that is, sharing the visions and actions of people with different perspectives—provides a meaningful hint for the way forward.

In the years ahead, individuals will strive for wellbeing in life that reflects their own personal attributes and aptitudes. Building up a series of small societal implementations originating in local communities and communities of interest is important in laying the groundwork for significant societal transformation.

In relationships that directly connect people with people, sharing a common vision and desired impacts will change social frameworks. Establishing a mutual sphere for this to take place will be essential.

1:Cabinet Office (2018) "International Survey of Youth Attitude 2018"
https://www8.cao.go.jp/youth/english/survey/2018/pdf_index.html (Accessed: 6 September, 2022)